EW's critic Leah Greenblatt presents the best books of the year, from groundbreaking debuts like The Hate U Give to new masterpieces from established greats like George Saunders and Jesmyn Ward.
10. The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy
“I wanted what we all want: everything.” And for a while, Levy had it; powered by a burning only-child ambition, she escaped from the suburbs to Manhattan to become a respected journalist and eventually, staff writer at the New Yorker. By 38 she was five months pregnant and married to a woman who adored her. But when she travels to Mongolia on assignment, her baby slips out of her body in one bloody, terrible night, and the rest of her good fortune follows. Levy is brilliantly frank and self-lacerating about the blind spots even the smartest women stumble into—and the combination of luck, hope, and hard work it takes to find a way out.
9. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
The kind of YA phenomenon that almost immediately transcended its target demographic, Thomas’ timely, clear-eyed debut tells the story of 16-year-old Starr Carter, a girl forced to the center of the national debate on race and privilege and police violence when her childhood best friend is shot and killed during a routine traffic stop. Starr never comes off like a symbol or stand-in, though; her voice is too fierce and funny to feel anything but real.
8. The Power by Naomi Alderman
Girls run the world in this wildly inspired future fiction, thanks to an electric force awakened in their collarbones. But is the sudden ability to upend millennia of gender norms necessarily a good thing? Alderman navigates the tricky moral straits of her new matriarchy in a novel whose globe-spanning canvas gives the reader four drastically different protagonists, and one of the most vividly imagined concepts to come along in years.
7. Goodbye Vitamin by Rachel Khong
When Ruth’s mother asks her to move home to Los Angeles for a year to help care for her ailing father, she agrees; there isn’t much to hold her in San Francisco anyway, besides a job she hardly cares about and an ex-fiance whose abrupt exit has left her numb. Vitamin brims with wry observations and deadpan wit (“It was grotesque, the way I kept trying to save that relationship,” she writes of the inscrutable ex. “Like trying to tuck an elephant into pants.”) But as Ruth’s quarter-life crisis dovetails with her dad’s growing dementia, the book taps into something deeper, offering a poignant meditation on love, mortality, and memory.
6. My Favorite Thing Is Monsters by Emil Ferriss
A graphic novel so immersive it feels almost four dimensional, Ferris’s audacious debut—which earned raves from pen-and-ink royalty Alison Bechdel and Chris Ware—zigs from late-‘60s Chicago to WWII-era Berlin and back again: a fantastical, densely cross-hatched world of Nazis and mobsters and neighborhood eccentrics, seen through the curious eyes of a 10-year-old girl.
5. Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
Single mother Mia and her teenage daughter Pearl drop like two small stones in the placid pond of Shaker Heights, their impact rippling out to touch nearly every corner of the orderly Ohio suburb. Most susceptible are their landlords the Richardsons, whose children are instantly smitten with the artsy Mia and mysteriously self-possessed Pearl, even as the righteous Mrs. Richardson finds herself increasingly unsettled by their eccentricities. Ng (Everything I Never Told You) builds Little Fires twig by twig, quietly subverting the standard framework of domestic drama until it all inevitably, spectacularly goes up in flames.
4. Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
Ward’s lyrical family saga follows several generations of a Mississippi clan haunted by the people and places they’ve lost: While his grandparents struggle to recover from the long-ago death of their teenage son and his distracted young mother spirals further into addiction, 13-year-old JoJo cares for his baby sister and begins to understand the fraught legacy of black manhood. Steeped in the spiritual and surreal, Sing is part ghost story, part Southern gothic, and wholly unforgettable.
3. Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann
In the early days of the 20th century, a tribe of Osage Indians are consigned to the scraggy hinterlands of Oklahoma, only to find black gold in its supposedly barren hills. Suddenly they’re sitting on more money than nearly every white man in the West—and showing up dead. The Osages’ systematic murders, and the involvement of J. Edgar Hoover’s then-nascent FBI, form the core of Grann’s (Lost City of Z) fascinating latest; a nonfiction epic so narratively rich and cinematic, it’s no surprise the film rights have already been locked in by Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese.
2. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
Leave it to short-story maestro Saunders to finally try his hand at full-length novel-dom, and turn every idea of the form on its head. The Booker Prize-winning Bardo, set almost entirely inside a Civil War-era graveyard, is many things: A moving portrait of a beloved president locked in private grief; a surreal Our Town for the dearly departed; a layer-caked marvel of experimental meta-fiction. But above all it’s a teeming, extraordinary banquet of humanity, a veil lifted on the mystery of everything that comes before and after and in between.
1. Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
Boy meets girl in a university classroom. He’s the dutiful son who works at ad agency and still lives at home; she’s the rebel who rides a motorbike and rolls joints on the rooftop terrace of her own tiny, treasured apartment. They talk and listen to records and begin to fall in love. But a harsher reality bleeds in from the margins of their unnamed Middle Eastern city: Bombs go off in busy markets; manned checkpoints are erected and strict curfews set; refugees pitch tents in alleys and greenways while anxious citizens line up for dwindling supplies. One day cell-phone service simply switches off, and doesn’t come back. As home becomes a place they hardly recognize, even the option to flee evaporates—until rumors reach them of doorways that work like portals, opening onto the unscathed streets of San Diego or Vienna or Mykonos. Hamid (Moth Smoke, The Reluctant Fundamentalist) presents all this with gorgeous economy; his spare, declarative sentences land miles away from the florid style of what’s usually called magical realism. The novel’s geopolitical message clearly couldn’t be more timely, but what makes the slim, luminous West feel radical is how profoundly it resonates on every page. The book can’t stop filling up your heart, even as it breaks it.